Dinner With the New Famous Dave
CEO Jeff Crivello and "Famous" Dave Anderson.
Having dinner with “Famous” Dave Anderson is a treat; there are just not many people as excited about food as he is. And with a new look for the restaurant and some delectable new menu items, there’s a lot to be excited about as the 24-year-old brand gets a refresh.
“We’re getting back to our roots and I just think that is something that we needed to get back to,” said Anderson, the founder of Famous Dave’s.
He said the core menu isn’t going anywhere, but the test menu items aim to counter the veto vote from diners who (for some reason) don’t want to eat the barbecue classics.
“We’ve always had our core group of Famous Dave’s barbecue menu items which really—through thick or thin—have kept us in the business. But one of the things, sometimes you have a no vote in barbecue. And even though we had a great menu with burgers and salads, they never really stood out,” said Anderson. “With the brand refresh, this was our opportunity to highlight some new things that still fit within our wheelhouse but are a little tastier, a little more fun. For example, our chicken and waffles—we have amazing chicken and waffles.”
It’s a classic take on chicken and waffles: a puffy, crunchy waffle topped with crispy fried chicken then topped with praline sauce that typically comes with Famous Dave’s bread pudding. It’s a sticky, crunchy, salty pile of heaven.
There’s also the jambalaya, a lower-calorie smorgasbord of Famous Dave’s classic meats in a new format, topped with char-grilled shrimp. It’s one of Anderson’s new favorites and an embrace of the southern flavors tangential to the classic menu offerings. Then there’s the Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner, a new platform for the new smoked turkey offering with the restaurant’s classic cornbread revived in stuffing form.
There are 20 test items in all, and each of them draw from the core operations but with a novel twist to be relevant to today’s barbecue diner.
CEO Jeff Crivello, who was also at the table, said it’s welcome traction after the past 10 years.
“We’ve kind of been stuck in the mud for the past 10 years, as other restaurants were moving quickly and doing a refresh every five years, were just a little behind. So we’re going to try to fast forward and get with the times,” said Crivello. “You can see where we’re at with this, we changed the vibe changed the energy.”
For a Tuesday afternoon around 4 p.m. in a suburb of Minneapolis, the restaurant was surprisingly energetic. There wasn’t a spot open at the newly renovated bar and the updated dining areas were near capacity. The bar crowd was especially fixated on the new AV system, watching sports and music videos. Diners dug in below new word walls that emphasized the brand’s barbecue DNA. Some attributes like the word walls and bold colors, it should be noted, came in a prior update overseen by Crivello’s predecessor in 2016. The majority of the restaurants have so far not seen any substantial update following either test.
“You walk into some of the older Famous Dave’s, they’re a little bit tired. Here clearly it’s all about energy and color—it’s vibrant,” said Anderson.
So what makes this refresh different from the clumsy missteps and half measures in the past decade? Well, since the founder returned in 2015, he’s been driving the updates and tossing sacred cows by the wayside. And he brought back some lessons from his fast-casual barbecue concept, Jimmy’s Southern BBQ and living the barbecue lifestyle.
“The previous group used outside consultants and what they tried to do was continue the Famous Dave’s that has been around for 20 years, where I came back and said, ‘No more sacred cows,’” said Anderson. “People would often say that they were protecting Dave’s legacy, and I’d say, ‘Wait, Dave’s legacy is changing. I am not your daddy’s barbecue anymore, there’s a new Dave today.’”
Crivello said a delegation from the franchise advisory board stopped by and was excited about the new changes. Menu items and cosmetic updates will roll out to the 15 corporate locations after a couple months, and then the best will roll out to the franchise network. He said the goal is an affordable $100,000 to $150,000 update and a la carte items from which franchisees can pick and choose.
Fourth-quarter results released earlier in May have been fairly positive, too. Since closing 12 underperforming corporate locations, the remaining 15 reported a 5.2 percent same-store sales lift and a 5.3 percent increase in traffic. That’s unheard of in today’s casual dining segment. Franchisees, however, are probably eager for the refresh—same-store sales at franchised locations were down 1.6 percent.